Bitters. They’re often one of the most forgotten and overlooked ingredients to a good cocktail. A dash or two (or even three!) can completely change a drink’s flavor profile, as well as its aroma. That’s why I signed up for a seminar at The 2014 Manhattan Cocktail Classic called “I’ll Take Manhattans: The History And Origins Of Aromatic Bitters”, taught by King Cocktail himself, the great James Beard Award-winning mixologist and author Dale De Groff. It was sponsored by Bulleit Frontier Whiskey and also served as a means by which De Groff could promote his own brand of Pimento bitters.
The seminar gave us an opportunity to be taught the various botanicals and spices that go into the manufacture of bitters. Additionally, we tasted bitters from different producers, then tried each of them in a Manhattan made with Bulleit Rye.
Angostura bitters is arguably the best known of them all. Founded in 1824, it tastes of nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice. Interestingly, it does not contain actual Angostura bark in its recipe. It does, however, contain Gentian root, which has a reputation of being extremely bitter.
Interestingly, a company named Abbotts produced their own bitters that did contain Angostura bark, which they proudly mentioned in their name. This resulted in the company being sued by the Angostura bitters company over their name; the Angostura company eventually won and it wound up that the Abbotts company was forced to rename their product.
It may sound odd to hear this now, but many bitters were originally marketed for medicinal use. While much of the claims about its curative effects may have been questionable, companies tended to do this because marketing their product as a medicine was more cost-effective. As a result, many people had to get their bitters from a pharmacy. That said, the bitters always contained a small amount of alcohol, which is the real reason why many people bought them.
The first known use of bitters was in the late 1600’s when an English company named Stoughton was credited with their invention. It wasn’t patented until 1712 although they actually came out with their product some years before. Their brand was one of those intended primarily for medicinal use.
A fellow by the name of Harry Johnson was known as being one of the seminal bartenders who contributed to the perfection of the cocktail. In 1888, he wrote a book called “The Handbook For Bartenders” which was used as a bible by many at that time who aspired to mixology. Quite a few of the recipes in his book called for the use of bitters; mentioned by name throughout the work were Angostura, Boone Camp and Stoughton. Other unbranded bitters documented included orange bitters and sherry wine bitters.
There is said to be an old joke that goes something like this: What’s going to last longer – my marriage or my bottle of Angostura bitters? That’s because very often, a bottle of bitters would be purchased and used so sparingly when mixing cocktails at home, it seemed as though that one bottle might last forever. For quite some time, bitters fell into disuse; over the past few years, however, there appears to have been something of a resurgence in the cocktail culture and with it, bitters seems to be making something of a comeback (although they never really left).